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The struggle against sexual violence: Art can go where anger cannot
By Amrita Nandy
Look Mother! Look how I fought. I was one, they were six. But afraid I was not...

Mother, I will not become you. I returned to laugh... to prosper, to live, to dare.

(Translated excerpt from Maa ni meri, a song by Ravinder Randhawa-Swara Bhaskar)

Horror. Anger. Anger. Grief. A trajectory of emotions recently erupted across India at the gang rape of a young woman in Delhi. While public anger against sexual violence is a rather belated, albeit welcome, response, what should be the next pit stop in our journey forward? How should we sustain a sense of outrage yet culminate our collective, angry surges on an affirmative note? Perhaps one with hope and courage? As women's suffering carves a place for itself in public memory, the performing arts can strike just the right notes for us to heal and hope. What better medium than art, for only art can go where anger does not.

Locally and internationally, there is one community that has always responded to violence with urgency and sensitivity - artistes. They tune their creative radars to women's suffering, making social reform an integral part of their agenda. No wonder then that the women's movement has enjoyed the support of local and international artistes and performers whose mission it is to transcend socio-cultural divides.

The manner in which the performing arts articulate women's anguish and dent the very symbols and codes that constitute violence proves rather effective. Some artistes-cum-political activists who are adept at doing this have incidentally been in India at this time of heightened public discourse on violence against women. Like the Tony award-winning playwright and author Eve Ensler. Ensler's Vagina Monologues exemplifies how the arts can re-conceptualise the woman's body. As taboo-breaking political theatre, it has been performed in over 140 countries and translated into 48 languages so far, helping women talk about their bodies, de-shame them and de-stigmatise sexual assault.

While collecting stories about women's lives, Ensler stumbled upon anecdotes of women's experiences of rape, assaults and battering, and this was the beginning of V-day, a global movement she initiated against violence against women. In India to show solidarity with friends in the women's movement and their fight against sexual violence, she also performed her moving poem, 'I am an Emotional Creature'.

During her recent travels across the country, Ensler interacted with activists, artistes and students, calling for One Billion Rising, perhaps the biggest and most powerful movement against violence against women. Dedicated to the billions of women who suffer violence, it calls people across the world to "rise, strike and dance", celebrating women's creative abilities to sing and dance in the face of oppression. Started on February 14, 2012, the campaign will culminate on the same date this year when people in over 182 countries will raise their voice against violence against women. Appropriating Valentine's Day for the campaign is a strategic move - to harness its message of love, compassion and dignity for women. Among a host of other events on the day, dancer and choreographer Mallika Sarabhai will lead a garba dance troupe of 20,000 students in Ahmedabad. Sarabhai and renowned European classical pianist Elizabeth Sombart, incidentally, have been touring the country with their dance-musical, 'Women with Broken Wings', which unravels the pain and suffering of women who have been murdered.

A ubiquitous presence during the protests against the gang rape in Delhi was that of Delhi-based theatre group, Asmita. Dressed in black kurtas, the Asmita troupe took to the streets across different locations in Delhi, staging 'Dastak', the story of a woman who is eve-teased and molested before being raped. The play addresses issues of people's silence on and apathy towards issues of sexual violence, and ends with an interactive discussion between the cast and the audience.

Apart from the streets and auditoriums, the cyberspace too has been brimming with artistic energy and expression against violence against women. Scriptwriter Ravinder Randhawa and actor Swara Bhaskar, along with their friends, composed a song, Maa ni meri (Mother Mine), as a token of their protest. Juxtaposing powerful dialogues and lyrics in Hindustani and Punjabi, the song has a young woman addressing her parents, police and politicians on issues of a woman's safety and dignity and her feisty response to the menace of sexual violence. The song has become an overnight success, liked and shared by thousands across the world.

It seems that even the creative pen of the writer, lyricist and poet has been suffused with the subject. At this year's Jaipur Literary Festival (January 24 to 28), a range of women's issues such as violence, feminism, equality, sexuality and so on, were addressed through poetry, stories and panel discussions. In attendance were leading women writers such as Arab novelist Ahdaf Soueif, Diana Eck, Lakshmi Holmstrom, Aminatta Forna, Nasreen Munni Kabir, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, among others.

What lies at the heart of all these performances and conversations is the desire to raise global consciousness against sexual violence in what has been otherwise a sea of apathy and neglect. Amidst talk of retributive justice, death and castration, the vocabularies of art and literature can pierce deeper than words. They give us newer ways to express pain and re-imagine the body. Dance, music and poetry can be a new form of contemplation. Art can elevate, transcend, entertain and yet embed memories, especially those that are public and collective.

—(Women's Feature Service)
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News Updated at : Saturday, February 2, 2013
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